The Crisis of Solid Waste Management in India

Dr. Richa Nair

Urban India today generates approximately 0.1 million tons of municipal solid waste every day. These dumps of waste are soaring new heights with every passing day. With no sustainable and safe solution in hand and decreasing availability of land for dump fills, things are getting pretty much outofhand.When a layman comes across the term MSW, it seems like a bullet point in one of the manifestos of a political party. But today ‘municipal solid waste’ or rather disposal of MSW has reached perilous levels, which needs immediate attention from one and all.

What is MSW?
Per capita waste generation in major Indian cities ranges from 0,2 Kg – 0.6 Kg per day. But what is this waste or garbage or trash as we know it? As per the Municipal Solid Waste (Management & Handling) Rule, 2000, garbage is defined as Municipal Solid Waste which includes commercial and residential wastes generated in municipal or notified areas in either solid or semi-solid form excluding industrial hazardous wastes but including treated bio-medical wastes. Municipal solid waste consists of household waste, construction and demolition debris,sanitation residue, and waste from streets. This garbage is generated mainly from residential and commercial complexes.

Urbanization and lifestyle changes have definitely affected the quantity and composition of municipal solid waste, but the bulk of MSW generated even today is still bio-degradable.

Although a high percentage of the waste is bio-degradable, most of it lands up in land-fills or open dumps. Open dump waste if not handled and treated properly can lead to different kinds of complex problems like health hazards, soil contamination, air pollution and consequently contribute to global warming and climate changes.

The bio-degradable matter which forms the major component of MSW can be recycled by the method of composting, which can significantly reduce the amount of disposable garbage [Fig.1]. Yet only 5-10% of total MSW is composted due to different problems pertaining to composting large volumes of waste at a time.

Some of the major issues of dealing with MSW, as identified by ENVIS (Environmental Information System -supported by Govt. of India) are land availability as dumping grounds,technology selection, trained manpower, law enforcement to name a few.

While solid waste management is a large scale public service system, the public constitutes an important unit of this vast system. Therefore community participation and initiative is paramount for the efficient and smooth functioning of this system, which is sadly lacking across our cities and towns.

Successful ModelsAbroad
According to the online portal’Ecowatch’, Copenhagen, one of the greenest cities in the world, stopped sending organic waste to landfills as far back as 1990. In 2011, the 27 states in the European Union composted on average 15 percent of municipal waste, with Austria composting 34 percent, the Netherlands 28 percent, and countries like France, Spain, and Germany each composting about 18 percent.

In the EU, 40 percent of waste is now composted or recycled, while 23 percent is incinerated and 37 percent landfi lied. Norway, Sweden, theNetherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany now send less than 3 percent of their waste to landfills.

According E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency, US) in 2012, Americans generated about 251 million tons of trash and recycled and com posted almost 87 million tons of this, equivalent to a 34.5 percent recycling rate. This prevented the release of approximately 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2012-equivalent to taking over 33 million cars off the road for a year. EPA encourages practices such as waste prevention, recycling and composting that reduce the amount of waste needing to be disposed of.

San Francisco’s composting program began with restaurants and other businesses, and in 2009 an ordinance made it mandatory for all residents to separate organic material for collection. Instead of two bins to set out on the curb for trash and recyclables, there are now three. The green compost bins can include all food scraps, no matter how spoiled, along with vegetation from yards like leaves and flowers, and solid paper products including coffee cups, waxy paper, milk cartons and related items. Overall, 78 percent of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.Seattle has a
similar program, as does Portland.

What can ‘I’ do?
The Hierarchy of Sustainable Waste Management (Fig 2.) developed by the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University is widely used as a reference to sustainable solid waste management and disposal.

This model considers reducing the use of materials and reusing them as the most environmental friendly path of waste management. As articulately explained in the report by Ranjith Kharvel Annepu on sustainable solid waste management in India, source reduction begins with reducing the amount of waste generated and reusing materials to prevent them from entering the waste stream. Material recovery from waste in the form of recycling and composting is recognized to be the most effective way of handling wastes. Due to technical and economic limitations of recycling, product design, inadequate source separation, and lack of sufficient markets that can use all sorted materials, most of the MSW generated in India ends up in landfills. Local authorities should start working with partners to promote source separation. While this is being achieved and recycling has increased, provision should be made to handle the non-recyclable wastes that are and will be generated in the future.

Despite waste minimization being She best way forward, we as individuals may not be able to restrict ourselves from generating waste due to our lifestyles today. An integrated approach of applying various methods to manage waste can help reduce the amount of waste we generate, reduce waste transportation costs and also decrease the landfill burden.


Generating community awareness especially at the grassroot level regarding the 3R directive of -REDUCE, REUSE & RECYCLE can go a long way in bringing about a change in the way people perceive waste. For instance, the amount of electronic waste that is created today is enormous. People therefore need to be sensitized to this problem so that each one makes an effort to reduce and reuse the electronic items we use in our day to day lives as far as possible.
Industries can also playa big role by adopting certain measures for waste minimization. Optimum usage of raw materials can be a big factor which can have, a positive impact on waste minimization. Utilization of by-products and waste utilization or recycling can be another step in the right direction.
figure3On the domestic front, home composting is a good way to contribute towards waste minimization. In Indian households 50-60 % of waste generated on a day to day basis is biodegradable. Kitchen waste composting would be a great way to start with, and would also yield nutrient rich compost forthe garden.

Today solid waste management has become an issue big enough to concern each one of us. It can no longer be left to municipal corporations alone. It is time, each one of us, takes a small step, to help resolve it. A small effort at our end will definitely bring about a big change in the current scenario.

Dr. Richa Nair is Director, Aaria 8io-Lifesciences Research Pvt. Ltd, which specializes in eco-friendly concepts, technologies and products.